Displays of classic African art in museums often take what were once functional objects and transforms them into ‘art’ placed behind glass. Masks are no longer worn, staffs aren’t held, stools aren’t sat upon. Instead, they are put in a vitrine for visitors to marvel at.
While many visitors might think they’re looking at art and cultures lost through the passage of time, Ndubuisi “Endy” C. Ezeluomba wants you to know that “Africa is continuing.” Originally from Benin City, Nigeria, Ezeluomba is now the Françoise Billion Richardson Curator of African Art at the New Orleans Museum of Art where he oversees one of the most important collections of classic African art in the United States.
ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA had the chance to sit down with the curator and pick his brain about his thoughts on restitution, connecting the classic and contemporary, and the future of African art.
Some time ago the writer Chimamanda Adichie, gave a presentation about history. My take away from her speech is that history is not told from just one source. It is only when multiple people come together do we experience multiple histories. When people tell their own story, they potentially give a much deeper account of what that story is about.
I started out studying African art when we were taught that African art was created only to serve religious functions, which obviously wasn't the case as we eventually grew to realise. I started out using ‘traditional art from Africa’ but now, I’m working very hard to frame it within the historic discourse.
Why do I think 'historical'? Well, I believe that many scholars, especially some of those that taught me here, now frame pre-colonial works within this whole rubric of ‘historic’. I use the term historic because I think, to a large extent, it alludes to the age of some of the objects that we are talking about. When we speak about historic, we are not alluding to the 'special functions' of the piece. The use of 'historical', I believe, is more a way to blur the line between aesthetics and function.
It also feeds back to when the field used terms like ‘tribal art' or ‘primitive art’. I believe scholars are consciously looking for a much more subtle term to use, something less jarringly out there waiting to be pounced upon by any critic.
Now let's go back to the initial question, which addresses the excitement about Africans taking over or being tasked with the responsibility of speaking about these objects that originally belonged to Africa. If we go back to what Adichie was saying, I believe that it is only proper to allow those that have invested the time for scholarship but that also have the experience of these cultures, engage with the work.
I think it brings a lot. The palace of Benin is right in the city of Benin, it's not located in the village, and many of those cultural practices that define the palace and the kingdom still happen right there, at the heart of the city. That is one.
Secondly, I am Igbo by my parents but I was born in Ibadan, Yoruba country. I grew up in Benin City and lived there till I was over 30. I studied the arts of the kingdom and I have personal experience in creating works alongside the guys we used to call ‘traditional’ carvers, arts that were not burdened by lineage restrictions. I apprenticed with a carver named Guobadia, close to my father's store at Uselu in Benin City. After apprenticing, I went to art school and was fortunate to be located close to the quarters of the guild of bronze casters—to study but also to conduct ethnographic research. A combination of those experiences brings so much into my role as curator.
Many Africanists can tell you that they've been out in the field and that they have conducted ethnographic research. But even with my scholarship in the arts from Benin City and despite having studied the intricacies of the shrines and rituals from the city, there are still many sites and customs that I don't have access to. Having access to deeper knowledge from those that are the original custodians of that knowledge adds something new to what we already have in this field of study.
The truth is that we need to train the manpower to maintain these collections when they are back in Africa, although it comes with a lot of problems.
I believe, to a large extent, that the problem stems from infrastructure. I have seen the two sides of the argument including what the Senegalese scholar recommended in 'total restitution'. Everybody wants to get their property back but it is hard at times to be very rational because our minds are tainted by personal biases and out of those biases we are prone to say things that in hindsight we might think, "maybe we could have tweaked this a little bit". That argument about total restitution, and at once, I believe is going to be problematic.
We know the restitution debate didn't start today, it started a long time ago and faced challenges then. An example, I know that in the '70s or '80s, some returned objects found their way back to Nigeria. We also know that a government official in charge of the Department of Antiquities in Lagos was arrested for selling works from Nigeria's collection! He was caught in a racket of selling the same works that were repatriated back to Nigeria. That is from the top guns of those establishments that are supposed to care for these objects.
And I personally experienced something similar. While in Benin City, I went to the museum to research Olokun, the most important deity in the religious pantheon of Benin. It was difficult for me to get access to information. Objects on display were next to nothing. But on my way out, this young man followed me out, cornered me and said, "I have something to tell you." He said that he had some documents about the ancient city of Benin. He had old maps that were kept in the museum's archives. He also has archival books, taken from the museum, that he could sell to me if I was willing to buy them. That's troubling!
If you send back these works to African countries, it is not hard for you to put two and two together to figure out what will happen to those objects almost immediately when they get there.
In addition, I worry about the ability to sustain the manpower we have today. If African nations work with the West to build infrastructures, institutions, and train scholars, if they work with them for a few years but then suddenly pull out, what happens in the future? When those international bodies pull out, the next thing you see is that things start to trend in the opposite direction.
So as good as the restitution debate is in raising awareness and driving the quest to send these works back to Africa, I think it is heavily political. What plans are you making to let the work come back? If we bring the art back home and they stay for some time, if they meet the kind of condition that many of their fellow objects are subjected to today, I believe that if the art can speak, they would say, "take me back!"
If the art could speak, the art would say "take me back."
Jos Museum was set up to collect and care for many of the objects found from the middle belt going up to Jos Plateau. I was at the Jos Museum in the fall of 2017, again for research. When I got to the museum, they had to start a little generator so that we could get electricity for the lights in order to view the pieces in the museum. Before I came, the generator was turned off, there was no electricity in the museum.
So if we take on the restitution debate, it will be very wise to look at both sides of the debate and be very realistic when we make judgments. My thinking was in line with Smooth Ugochukwu Nzewi’s—rather than taking it back to the country or culture or origin, individuals from those countries can actually buy them or create endowments for them. That way, they know that they have made an investment and will thus care for the pieces.
If I put my money in it, I'll be forced to care for it and ensure that it returns value.
Another suggestion, which I also like, is that of continuous rotation. Pieces stay 'x' number of years at one institution but then go back so that another set of works can be rotated. Maybe in the course of rotation, those at the royal palace get more engaged with museums. I believe that the discussion will start changing from that point on.
We have to also remember that many of those kingdoms and cultures from which works were created are no longer with us today, so are we giving it back to the country? That doesn't make sense. The people that are within kingdoms or societies that exist today are now disconnected from these objects. If we give pieces back to them, how will they react?
Fairly recently, change has actually started coming. But before now I believe that that pattern of thinking was actually the product of modern Pentecostalism that swept across many African countries. That dealt a massive blow to many cultural artefacts in Nigeria. My late grandfather burned up his store full of ikenga and many of his cultural relics. I was in Benin City when my father came back from the village and said that his father had converted to Christianity and I was forced to come home, put petrol on those things, and set them ablaze. My late father was also a champion of keeping objects that were not Christian away from the house, away from your body.
When my father and I discussed what I planned to study, art history, he mentioned that I had not exhausted the cosy courses—law and medicine. And even within art history, he mentioned that I could have studied Western art and not Nigerian art history. I specialised in Olokun and the study of water spirits and shrines but to him, this was the most dangerous area of study. But with reasoning, the idea of art as an academic field of study started to filter through and then he finally came to understand the field. He understood that I was studying from an academic perspective which meant that the 'spirits' would not affect me the way he felt it would affect others. Finally, my father was the first to say, "It really looks as though we had a total misconception about ‘traditional things.’" I use him as an example of the changing mindset of the people. In the course of doing fieldwork, I have come across an increasing number of people, even pastors, that now have conversations about the art.
I've even come across people that have said, "Oh, I'm done with Christianity, I'm going back to my roots." A rethink is beginning to occur in the mind of many.
I don't think that argument holds water. We know that many functional objects, many of the things that we study here today as art, were created to be used and after use, they were discarded and new ones created. So with that in mind, I don't know how the argument adds up. I know for instance, among my father’s people, if a masquerade has served out its life cycle, another one is carved. They desacralise the previous one and sacralise the new. The new mask continues functioning while the old is left to rot, is broken up into firewood or simply thrown away. I think the '90%' comes from the introduction of authenticity in African art. The thinking goes that authentic art is that which was used in a religious function many, many years ago.
Among the questions you sent in advance of our discussion was what my favourite piece is in the museum's collection. This is an object that came from the Kalabari region of the Cross-River State in Nigeria. It the duein fubara ancestral screen. In the early twentieth-century, Percy Amaury Talbot, a British colonial district officer and anthropologist, took them away from the Kalabari people. It was a priest, I believe a Catholic priest, who was in cahoots with some Kalabari people that had converted to Christianity. They were literally burning all objects associated with traditional religions. Talbot, in a rescue mission, asked for some objects to be sent to the UK and donated them to the Pitt Rivers Museum. The pieces have since moved on but a doctorate student at the University of Port Harcourt, Prince Soduate is currently studying duein fubara screens and has discovered that these screens are still being made today. Nigel Bailey, in a number of books, has written so conclusively that the Kalabari people discontinued that practice. But that practice is still going on today.
So thinking about the ninety percent stat, when the new duein fubara screens come on the market, many will call them inauthentic because they don't fall within the time frame set by the art market.
Yeah, it's true. And that is why we can make that kind of totalising statement that ninety percent of African art is no longer there. If you talk to today’s practitioners—because at the end of the day those works were created for and given to practitioners of different kinds of rituals and ceremonies—if you bring them the old pieces, they might tell you "No, we don’t want these, we want new pieces." They also have this mindset of using and discarding things. So, are we saying that Africa remained static?
When I first came into the museum world, I saw that things were a little bit rigid there too. For instance, there was a show that we were working on, before they pulled the plug. We were working on a masking show and we had done a lot of very interesting research but then all of a sudden, we stopped at older masks, especially those that we already know well here. And as we were about to wrap it up planning, I was quick to tell everyone, "Hang on, Africa did not stop, Africa is continuing." Africa is continuing, and so it is still producing a lot of new types of masks, some never seen before.
Another example is with one of the shows that I did in Florida before I left. I consulted with the curator about Elusive Spirits. The curator stated that there is nothing new to write about masquerades in Africa. I'm like, "Hmm are you sure?" How can we make such totalising conclusions about art production in Africa?
Africa did not stop. A show must help visitors understand that. If not, then you are not giving a complete picture of what Africa is.
"Africa did not stop, Africa is continuing. It is still producing a lot of new types of masks, some never seen before."
There is no point separating them. I believe that maybe some of those museums where they put contemporary art in the contemporary section, do so as a way of showing interdepartmentalism so that visitors can go see African art in the contemporary gallery.
But Carol Thompson at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta has brought it even closer, placing works of contemporary and historic art side by side in a kind of dialogue. That is the way going forward because Africa is continuing, so if you take away the contemporary from the historic, you are not telling a complete history. If you merge them, we can consciously begin to create that dialogue.
I believe that down the road, quite a number of other curators will begin this process of merging. This will increasingly be the case because scholars studying African art history, tend to back away from the historic—their perception being that there is nothing new to study, it's not important, it's not relevant. But go ask creative people, I am a creative person, I started as an artist. If you ask me where most of my creative inspiration comes from, I'll tell you that it's from works of historical art that we saw in books many years ago in college. And I'm sure that if I could get such inspiration, then I'm probably not alone, there are other artists that probably have the same kind of experience. So if artists are bold enough to engage with historic art to create, then as curators, why are we not bold enough to begin to put them in the same place and let them be in a conversionary position?
I am open to that kind of direction in the museum because I inherited a department that was curated by an Africanist, Bill Fagaly. He was the curator here for fifty years. He was the product of Roy Sieber, the first American professor of African art history. So most of his programs were modelled around what he learned from Sieber in the '50s and '60s, which was to continuously compartmentalise African art into geographic regions. So I took over an African section that has next to no contemporary art at all.
Well, in the long run, the idea will be to use contemporary art to bridge most of those gaps. But in the interim, I feel that one or two acquisitions from the contemporary side will actually begin to come into the heavily historic art department. In addition, the contemporary guys are also very, very happy and keen to collaborate. They are excited to see what I'm going to show them and see how it fits into their programme.
But the ultimate aim is to restructure the gallery to represent Africa's reality. Because it is a reality. I’m not here to continuously reinforce a narrative that I believe no longer holds water, the narrative that singles out historic arts claiming that "this is the art of Africa." That kind of narrative should actually begin to reconsider itself. And if you look at Smooth Ugochukwu, the [now former] curator of African art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, he is pro-contemporary African art, everybody knows that. But if you go to the Cleveland Museum, he is also being bold in challenging viewers to look at both sides, he's bringing them together.
It will eventually become a new normal. African art was created by artists from Africa in historic times. African art is currently being created by artists from that same Africa. It did not stop.
The most important, hmm... That is a really very complex question. It's a complex question because what is important here, may not be important elsewhere.
The previous curator said his favourite was a small terracotta house that came from Djenne. I wrote a short essay on it in the January–April 2019 edition of the NOMA Magazine. Before I joined NOMA, I was working alongside a team at the museum in Virginia to test the idea of 'probing beneath the surface' of African art. So as you can imagine, when I joined NOMA, I was very curious to know what was going on beneath the surface of that terracotta. But before I could investigate, I discovered that some other scholars have already conducted CT scans on the terracotta. The radiologist found eight vertical structures that he believed to be human beings in lying positions. A hand comes out of the door of the structure that the CT scan revealed to belong to a female figure, a pregnant woman in a child birthing position inside the structure as well. The curator at the Menil in Houston, Texas concluded that in that part of Africa—Mali and Burkina Faso—there was a ritual where they had to sacrifice pregnant women.
But again, looking at the pregnant women in the structure reminded me of a custom in the Kalabari region or in many Igbo societies of Nigeria, of fattening rooms where brides-to-be were taught what it was to be a woman. I believe that the lady posed in a birthing position could have been a model that was used to educate those eight bodies lying down beside her.
So that is a very interesting and 'important' object in the museum. But besides that, I cannot put one over the other. Individually, each and every one of the objects is important.
One of the best shows I went to see last year was the 'Striking Iron' show at the Fowler Museum. The exhibition design was super and the variety of scholars that gave papers to show the importance of metal, of iron, was really fascinating. The exhibition showed how the smith has transformed metal in Africa through the generations even until today. It chimed into the discussion that Africa is a continuum. It did not present us a pristine Africa where blacksmith of the fifteenth and sixteenth-century created works and then abruptly stopped. No. It was very ambitious in trying to show the viewer metal works from the whole continent and not just from one part of Africa. It went as far as Morocco, going up to Tunisia, going up to Egypt.
In addition, they were able to attract scholars from the sciences, astronomy, African culture, and art. Rowland Abiodun was at the show as was Tom Joyce, one of the leading metal artists in the world. So that was one of my favourite shows although it is just one of many interesting shows that I’ve visited.
Interest in studying historical art of Africa is very, very low. And I think it comes with a reason. Barack Obama said that if you're doing the same thing for fifty years and it doesn't work, you have to try another way. So maybe the way we have staged the work to this point makes some say that there is nothing new to learn with historic African art. But if we make it more exciting I believe that some people might then feel the need to really look at it again and see something new, something different. I started from the premise that, when you look at an African artwork or object, if you look at it ten times you will learn ten new things. Perhaps that's due to the closeness I have to African art or maybe because of the way it animates me. Its animatedness comes with excitement. So if you make it exciting, I believe that it will attract people's attention and then if it attracts people’s attention, it'll gain a following.
When Roy Sieber became the first American professor of African arts in the U.S., oh, there was a buzz! Everybody wanted to emulate him. He raised a generation of scholars, the names we're all familiar with—Chris Kreamer, Babatunde Lawal, Cornelius Oyeleke Adepegba, and Robin Poynor. If it becomes exciting, people will be attracted to it and then it will become significant once again.